May 22, 2002


Sweet land of liberty : Britain and Europe have free governments, but only in the US are the people truly free (Mark Steyn, 5/18/02, The Spectator)
The last Frenchman to get the United States was Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America (1840) he wrote, "Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within people's reach, they teach men how to use and to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty." That's exactly the phrase: "the spirit of liberty". In the hours and days after 11 September, British friends kept asking me why it was Mayor Giuliani who was taking charge on the streets of Lower Manhattan rather than President Bush. The implication seemed to be that the mayor is some kind of understudy, that the system isn't working unless the top guy's there. But that's to get it exactly backwards. It's in the mayor and the police and fire departments and other municipal institutions that you measure the health of a society.

Trundling around Britain, Europe and the Middle East in recent weeks, I canít say I detected ëthe spirit of libertyí anywhere. I felt its absence in many places--in the impotence and fatalism of prosperous English property owners barricaded into their homes behind their window locks and laser alarms because nothing can be done about the yobboes lobbing the bollards through the bus shelter until David Blunkett comes up with a nationally applicable policy on the subject. And even then he's likely to have filched it from some American police chief--like the "broken window" theory, of which one hears more in Britain than the US these days.

That's what the "democratic deficit" does: it snuffs out the spirit of liberty. The issue is not how to make the chaps in Brussels more "accountable", but why all that stuff is being dealt with in Brussels in the first place--why so much of the primary-school science can only be entrusted to the laboratory's men in white coats, like Chris Patten. Eurocrats who spent much of the Eighties mocking President Reagan's "trickle-down economics" are happy to put their faith in trickle-down nation-building: if you create the institutions of a European state, a European state will somehow take root underneath.

It doesn't work that way over here. The other day, I went to a party for my neighbour Becky, who was retiring after many years as secretary in the town office. Afterwards, I came home and heard that America had withdrawn from the International Criminal Court. These are really two sides of the same coin. At Becky's party, about half the town's adult population were there, many of whom held elected office in municipal government: there were the town clerk and sexton, the cemetery commissioners and library trustees, all elected. There were members of the school board, who, despite being part-time and unpaid, have more control over curriculum and taxation than the Welsh Assembly does. There was Dina, my hairdresser and also the school district treasurer, who cuts the cheques for the teachers each week. There was Freddie, our road agent, who maintains the highways and decides the load limits. Think about that: the weight of the trucks on our roads is the responsibility of an elected official right here in town; in Milton-under-Wychwood, the weight of the juggernauts rumbling through the village is decided by Brussels.

Most British politicians reckon this sort of thingís a joke. But you'd be surprised: give people democratic control of roads, education, law and order, public services and so forth, and it does wonders for their disposition. These things are all primary-school science, but in Britain they're mostly reserved to quangoes staffed by baronesses. The baronesses are perfectly pleasant, but itís unclear to me why their skills are so highly regarded that they should supplant responsible self-government. Meanwhile, what's left to elected officials is trivial. Fleet Street finds it hilarious when Clint Eastwood gets elected mayor of Carmel or Sonny Bono mayor of Palm Springs--typical bloody Yanks, hung up on shallow celebrities. But, to the contrary, the celebrities are acknowledging that, when it counts, theyíre citizens. That's the "spirit of liberty": plumbers, doctors, strippers, movie stars get steamed about crime or zoning regulations or logging restrictions and decide to do something about it. How come Liz Hurley or Robbie Williams never run for mayor or councillor? Because, like non-celeb Britons, they know itís not worth it.

With all due respect to the great Mr. Steyn--who lives in the next town over from us--he's forgotten the one other perceptive Frenchman :
Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.
-Jacques Barzun (God's Country and Mine)

Of course, Mr. Barzun wisely fled France for America many decades ago. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2002 7:14 AM
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